Please note: this is the short version of a much longer thesis on the negative impact of advertising. I have spared you.
Recently I had a lively discussion with a young woman regarding the multi-billion dollar magazine industry, in particular fashion and lifestyle magazines, and their love affair with advertisers. Though I am neither particularly interested nor well-versed in the latest whims of the fashion industry, I am interested in the reasoning behind people’s choices, including those we perceive as perfectly mundane.
In this case I became annoyed, having casually flipped open a magazine of the high-end, high-gloss variety and being unable to find the table of contents. Having no vested interest in how to apply what make-up, or learning from the hallowed pages of a magazine twelve wonderful new ways to please my man, I was looking instead for the one and only article featured on the cover in which I had even the slightest bit of faith that it may contain some interesting information. Alas, to my utmost consternation, no table of contents was to be had despite having a general understanding of its approximate location in similar magazines: near the front.
In the magazine in question however the first 52 pages(!) were reserved not for such mere utilitarian purposes, but had been given over to the taloned clutches of the revenue department. They in turn had phoned up an impressive list of companies whose names and products now graced these first 52 pages in lieu of a table of contents.
Let me start by saying that I do understand the appeal of advertisement revenue for the magazine. I understand that when confronted with the choice of being merely rich and becoming inordinately wealthy, most of us choose the latter. In fact this behavior is tempered in most of us only by lack of availability and, in some cases, excellent morals. We can safely assume that people selected to generate revenue lack the latter so let us focus on the former. The magazine has ample space to place advertisements, and subsequently does so with abandon. I want to stress: this is their prerogative. Having said that however, the magazine company should consider that its customer base does not buy their magazine for the advertisements; they buy it for the content. Be it for entertainment, education, or otherwise, people buy magazines for their content, which relegates advertisements to the long list of things in our modern, capitalist lives deemed “necessary evils.”
What does that mean? To me a necessary evil is something that is devoid of merit, even a burden to others, but cannot be avoided for some reason. Hence ‘evil’ – a decidedly negative connotation – is affixed to the ‘necessary’ bit, the part that deals with its right of existence. It would stand to reason then that we, the people, would prefer to be subjected to the least possible number of these necessary evils. It would further stand to reason that the magazine company understands this simple truth about its consumers. Thus, it would make sense to have enough advertisements (a necessary evil) featured in your magazine to pay for the production costs, whilst generating the rest of your revenue through sales. Apparently, that is not the reality in which magazines are made however. Where I had naively believed magazines were about providing people with information, I have since come to understand that magazines are the vehicles of advertising for other companies, the magazine content being the limp worm meant to attract fish who are then subsequently caught by the razor sharp hook of advertising. The primary customers for magazines therefore are the companies using their glossy pages of shameless prostitution to revenues for their own gain. We, the people, are a secondary concern for the magazines, made important only by virtue of being able to sell more advertising space if the magazine itself sells well. After all, the more idiots buy these short-lived coffee table bibles, the more people will be subjected to less-than-subliminal advertisements. So eagerly these magazine companies suck at the teat of capitalism, that it has become commonplace to have to actively search through hundreds of pages to find the very thing which used to be central to the magazine’s purpose: information.
The girl with whom I was speaking was at first confused at my consternation and then appalled by my lack of fondness for the status quo in the magazine world. When I proposed that advertisements serve no purpose to the target audience of the magazine and should therefore be relegated to the back of the magazine I was scoffed at. “The back of the magazine – what they call ‘the well’” she added patronizingly “is where all the information is!”( I should mention that her working for a huge magazine company probably did not help getting through to her.) “Yes” I responded “that much has become painfully clear.” She wanted to know what the problem was. I told her in the simplest way I knew how: “I do not wish to be advertised to.” Her face first went white with shock, as though I had cursed the name of God himself, and then red with rage as she prepared to counter my blasphemy.
The conversation after that was lively. Had she been my physical equal, there would have been a massive fight I am sure. As it happened, the fight remained in the ring of words, but was no less heated as a result. My position remains the same as it did that day. I do not wish to be advertised to. I accept that advertising is a necessary evil and that it generates revenue that allows for things to be developed. I even admit that advertising helps keep the costs to the consumer down. Yes, I really do understand the basic precepts of economics – despite them being an utter bore – but I am unmoved by the willingness of people to forsake their principles in favor of that extra dollar. It is said that every man has his price, and if that is true than I believe most of you sell yourselves far too cheaply. Advertisements, in this case in magazines, should be relegated to the back of the magazine, at the end of the content, where it may be viewed at the discretion of the consumer, not the other way around. In a world where the advertising is more important than the content of the magazine, I state here and now that I am no longer willing to pay for such a magazine. By buying a magazine I become part of a statistic – sales figures – which are interpreted not to determine how qualitatively good the magazine is, but how well is sells. I am not interested in how well the magazine sells; I am interested in its contents. If the balance of content to advertisements is such that the table of contents is relegated to page 52 then I believe the magazine does not care about its content enough to tell the 51 advertisers who preceded it to go fuck themselves, take a number, and line up at the back of the magazine where they belong. Moreover, by insisting being in the front of the magazine, purposely placing their products where people will be forced to look at them on their way to the table of contents and the content of the magazine itself, these companies are admitting their products cannot be taken on their own merit. They are failing in their mission to sell me something I didn’t ask for, and are instead actively telling me that they believe that if given the choice I would not choose their product over that of their competitors. In their attempt to take this choice away from me they have made my choice that much easier: if given the choice I indeed will not choose their product – not because I believe it to be of inferior quality, but because they believed me to be of inferior intellect, unable to make up my mind for myself.
I can only hope that in my desire to be a discerning consumer by being selective in the products I buy I spark a hastily convened, emergency meeting of the great advertisers of this world where a dialogue will develop along these lines:
“The people are catching on! They know! They know we’re patronizing them by flaunting our disdain for them whilst simultaneously compelling them to buy the shit we’re selling! What are we going to do?” To which another shameless advertiser will say: “Calm down, Johnson! How many people know?” To which the answer will be: “So far only one, Sir, but if this free will and sense of awareness catches on, we could be in real trouble!”
I wish I could boycott all companies who force their advertising on me. I wish I would be taken seriously if I wrote a letter of complaint to these institutions within the church of money. I wish I could somehow award the companies whose advertising is subtle and understated, or better still: nonexistent in light of the quality of their products speaking for itself. Alas, I know that this is the world we live in, and that is the way it is – a necessary evil. Still I say if more people acted on information instead of on advertisement-driven impulse, this world would be a better place. What if advertisers gave their audiences the benefit of the doubt and said: “we were going to advertise in this space, but we don’t need to, you can make up your own minds”
I’d be all over that, not because the reverse psychology is less patronizing than greedily shoving pretty girls unrelated to the product you are trying to sell in my face, but because it is at least a nod in the right direction. Quality will always sell itself by virtue of being inherently desirable. The bigger, the glossier, the closer to the front of the magazine the advertisement, the more I feel like you are overcompensating for the lack thereof.